Saturday, December 1, 2018

NASA launches safety review of SpaceX and Boeing

I get a rocketry-oriented weekly mailing from Ars Technica called the Rocket Report.  This week's report links to a story that NASA plans to launch a safety review of SpaceX and Boeing.  They link to the source of the story as the Washington Post, so perhaps not the most credible source in the DC swamp.  The Rocket Report editor has an interesting take on the story.
What is really at play here? ... This was an interesting development. We have heard several reasons for this, from NASA wanting to perform a CYA review in case something goes wrong with these commercial spaceflights to, (more plausibly in our opinion) an effort by a few Congressmen to detract from SpaceX's efforts to win the race to the commercial crew launchpad. Remember, there are people in Congress who don't like commercial crew in general and SpaceX specifically. We're told NASA human spaceflight chief Bill Gerstenmaier did not view this review as necessary but was not really in a position to resist.
The Washington Post leads with the angle that some widespread videos of Elon Musk smoking pot are the reason, as if the behavior of their carney barker CEO would be a better indicator than their track record as commercial launch provider.
The review was prompted by the recent behavior of SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, according to three officials with knowledge of the probe, after he took a hit of marijuana and sipped whiskey on a podcast streamed on the Internet. That rankled some at NASA’s highest levels and prompted the agency to take a close look at the culture of the companies, the people said.

NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs declined to comment on what prompted the review. But in a statement, he said it would “ensure the companies are meeting NASA’s requirements for workplace safety, including the adherence to a drug-free environment.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an interview that the agency wants to make sure the public has confidence in its human-spaceflight program, especially as the companies are getting closer to their first flights, scheduled for next year.
So why does Boeing get lumped into this if it's related to Musk's sometimes frankly bizarre behavior?  This supports the idea that it's really due to some people in DC not wanting to relinquish power to the private sector.  (Where "power" equals budget$ and $pending).  You might recall a story from 2016 reporting that then-NASA chief Charlie Bolden was opposed to private space operations. 
Bolden was asked for his opinion on the emerging market for small satellites and launchers. He chose to respond instead with his thoughts on NASA's own rocket, the Space Launch System, and private-sector development of larger launch vehicles.

"If you talk about launch vehicles, we believe our responsibility to the nation is to take care of things that normal people cannot do, or don’t want to do, like large launch vehicles," Bolden said. "I’m not a big fan of commercial investment in large launch vehicles just yet."
To be sure, Bolden is gone and doesn't matter anymore, and it's not the case that everyone agrees with this view.  Lori Garver, a deputy administrator of NASA from 2009 to 2013, has been quoted as saying that perhaps NASA should stop dumping money into development of the heavy lift SLS and use commercial options like the SpaceX Falcon Heavy or BFR.
"The question is really, why would the government continue to spend billions of dollars a year of taxpayer money for a rocket that will be unnecessary and obsolete?"
ARS Technica reporter Eric Berger pointed out that while the Falcon Heavy can't necessarily lift the payloads of the SLS, it's an incredibly cheap heavy lift rocket and NASA would save serious money by taking advantage of what it can do.
For the sake of argument, consider the costs of this three-year delay against the lift capability NASA could have bought by purchasing Falcon Heavy rockets from SpaceX in 2018, 2019, and 2020. That $7.8 billion equates to 86 launches of the reusable Falcon Heavy or 52 of the expendable version. This provides up to 3,000 tons of lift—the equivalent of eight International Space Stations or one heck of a Moon base. Obviously NASA does not need that many launches, but it could buy several Falcon Heavy rockets a year and have the funds to build meaningful payloads to launch on them. [Bold added - SiG]
So it seems to me this "safety" review is a cover for a "trying to come up with reasons private sector launch vehicles shouldn't be used" review.  Here's the thing no one's talking about: NASA doesn't really build rockets, so anything that's claimed to be a NASA booster would be built by Boeing or another contractor like SpaceX anyway.  To borrow a phrase, NASA people are the Only Ones capable of handling manned space flight safely.  They've had the special, magical, government competency dust sprinkled on them.

One of the highlights of the Falcon Heavy test launch was the landing of the Heavy's two boosters back on the Kennedy Space Center, near the launch complex they left from.  They were offset in time deliberately for the aesthetics of seeing them landing like this.  


  1. This is a direct move to keep manned spaceflight firmly either with the Russians or 'directly' with NASA through Lockheed Martin. Which leads to a reasonable hypothesis of collusion between either NASA and the Russians, NASA and Lockmart, both, or a 3-way conspiracy. Since they control who flies and also who is licensed to fly, well...

    I feel that some parts of NASA are trying to support Russia Only, while others are firmly in cahoots with Lockheed Martin.

    NASA was talking about de-certifying SpaceX and Boeing a year ago, and two years ago. This is nothing new. I just love a good government shakedown.

  2. NASA is gun control, the government doesn't want the peasants to have ICBMs. On the other hand, there's Copenhagen Suborbitals, which is now working on a manned rocket.

    Around 2002 I took a tour of the Johnson space center. The entire place was nostalgia for the Apollo era. The tour guide seemed extremely knowledgeable, gave the impression of knowing all the stories behind all the stories. In one building I saw a small vehicle, looked like a six million dollar man type lifting body drop test, with a vendor's name on it that had been getting press recently. Either Scaled Composites or SpaceX, I forget which. I asked the tour guide what the vehicle was, and he told me the vehicle name and changed the subject. I'm surprised the vehicle wasn't turned around to hide that logo against the wall. Maybe the logo was on both sides.

  3. That would have been the Scaled Composites X-38, a possible crew escape vehicle for the ISS.

  4. I'm surprised that Boeing isn't being subjected to a safety review by the FAA in light of the Lion Air 737-800Max crash....but that would probably blow back on the FAA's Seattle Aircraft Certification Office.
    Elon Musk needs not to do shit that would get any of his employees fired; but he's a flamboyant leader who dreams big and I suspect that's what a disruptive company needs.
    Jerry Pournelle had the right of it when he said NASA should stick to managing and directing X-Prizes for which private companies could compete.
    Just my $0.02

  5. I'm getting pretty tired of our moribund federal government. I wouldn't put it past Musk to buy an old aircraft carrier and make a launch facility just into international waters and tell the US to pound sand.

  6. Not to forget that "pork barrel" politics caused the Shuttle's boosters to be made in parts that could be moved by rail, necessitating the O-rings that failed.

  7. I'm surprised you haven't mentioned the other problems SpaceX has had recently - for example, the instrument contamination issues from outgassing that are occurring on the ISS after Dragon capsules are used to resupply it, or the quality control issues with Falcon rockets that NASA recently disclosed. To me, those are much bigger issues than smoking pot or drinking whiskey, but they have gotten little coverage in non-technical media that is besotted with Musk.

    1. Mostly because I get that same press. Unless it makes to the engineering magazines I get or Ars Technica's Rocket Report, I don't hear of it.

      I saw a headline about the outgassing issue this morning for the first time, but didn't have time to read it, and your mention of the QC issues is the first mention I've heard of that.